Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Non-fiction for the elderly, or the very young?

A delightful history

Our first phone: I was new then
Thinking of two dear friends, one in technology, the other retired, as I am, I should like to recommend as delightful and informative reading Jon Gertner's The Idea Factory, which I just finished reading on my Device.
I don't know whether this will most delight those who can remember most of it or those who have toiled in assorted Idea Factories themselves.  Naturally, since I still find avocado-green phones slightly distasteful, I am writing this one all in black.
Walter Isaacson's review in the Sunday NY Times is good, of course, but the greatest pleasure of the book, for me, was in all the details (as of the making the Telstar satellite, to name just one).
I confess to a lifetime fondness for the big acronyms, such as NASA, JPL, LANL, et al., but especially for the Bell Labs, and, by extension, even for the memory of Ma Bell as a whole.  I had a childhood friend whose father worked for Bell, and I think for the Labs, who had a telescope, whose radio was components (and that c. 1944) rather than a piece of furniture, whose knowledge, when we both were age 10, awed me.  A neighbor later played for me a piece composed on a computer, which had been fed 18th-century Counterpoint, that produced a piece that sounded worse than a theremin (a primitive electronic instrument that you merely did not touch and which produced only a melodic line) but that did indeed come out with a real fugue, as I recall, which significantly was musically correct but not musically memorable.  As an adolescent and young adult, I lived across the Bay from Silicon Valley, and lots of people were full of interesting conversation.  I remember first hearing a transistor radio in Greek Mani, before they even had electricity or running water there; I saw CNN first in 1982 in the village café near the Early Neolithic site of Nea Nikomedia, where they were discussing what shortly would be called AIDS; they had a satellite.  One evening after dinner in Old Corinth we sat looking at the sky as one of the early Russian satellites passed, blinking at us, overhead.  But then, persons of my cohort also remember the first direct transmissions of radio and TV programs wirelessly.  And hundreds of other things.
Is it just grief at the thought of Greeks' suffering today or the anguish of USPS that make me remember feeling as if the world had come to an end when Ma Bell was divorced from all her spouses (if I may call them that)?  Why was the breakup of Columbia so much more painful than almost any other accident?  You may think of your own to cite.
Yes, there is nostalgia.  My first phone call was from my grandparents' phone number 972-M (no dial at all, to a live woman at the central), the letters M, J, and R (the three I remember), like the Able, Baker series, chosen because unmistakable.  See the picture, from when I was 2 months old?  No dial.  But the telephone was already far from new, of course.
What I did not fully understand was the true importance of transistors.  And like John Pierce I deeply believe that it is security in basic research that is more important than almost anything else (so the "acronyms" needn't be perfect).
The book is very well written and fully documented.  You'll enjoy it, I think.